One of the beauties of Mexico is its geographic location, with coasts on the Pacific Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico, which is connected to the Atlantic Ocean via the Florida Straits. From these waters comes a bounty of edible sea life, which is celebrated at Caracol, the award-winning restaurant of culinary team of Chef Hugo Ortega and Restaurateur Tracy Vaught.
Caracol meaning “snail” in Spanish, was chosen as the restaurant’s name because of Chef Hugo’s fond memories of making ceviche de caracol (conch ceviche) in his brother Jose Luis’ kitchen at a resort in Playa del Carmen (see Hugo’s personal essay below).
Our menu is a culinary tour along the Mexican coasts, which are shared by 16 of the country’s states. We are committed to responsible sourcing – we feel strongly that we must be good stewards of our waters and the life that comes from it.
The menu’s journey begins with the sections Crudos and Cocteles y Escabeches, light items where the flavors of the seafood are the star; continues with Antojitos, or “little cravings,” small bites, typically like those served at street food throughout Mexico. Refreshing Sopas y Ensaladas (soups and salads) feature many seasonal items; and main course options, or Platos Fuertes, showcase moles and other traditional dishes. The Del Horno section features items from Ortega’s custom wood-burning oven, such as whole roasted fish, short ribs and a dish straight from Chef Hugo’s heart, Ostiones Asados – wood-roasted Gulf oysters with chipotle butter, which celebrates his love for oysters.
Complementing the savory menu are the postres, desserts, by executive pastry chef Ruben Ortega, including the signature El Coco, a chocolate coconut-shaped shell of housemade chocolate filled with coconut buttercream,coconut ganache and coconut streusel served with a small wooden mallet which guests use to crack open the coconut. Sommelier/beverage director Sean Beck’s innovative and adventurous wine, beer and spirits program perfectly fit the fun, upbeat atmosphere of the restaurant.
Our interiors mix rustic and industrial, modern and traditional elements, with a natural color palette of sand, straw and blue reference aquatic life and the beautiful beaches of the Mexican coasts. Throughout, including in the custom carpet, menus and the logo itself, are emblems of historical Mexican cave paintings that pay respect to Mexico’s long history. Alongside these ancient drawings are water life art by American Modernist painter Charley Harper gracing the walls. Sailboat booms over the bar that create glassware storage, suspended sailcloth waves and gray-washed tables and woven chairs are modern interpretation of coastal dining.
In 2003, my brother Jose Luis moved from Houston back to Mexico to be a chef at a resort in Playa del Carmen. I visited him shortly after, and we made conch ceviche together. It is a specialty of that area and I needed help perfecting the dish for the menu at Hugo’s. We spent time with our children, fishing, cooking and walking along the beach. The memories from that trip (and others since) are so precious to me that I named this restaurant Caracol, the Spanish word for conch or snail, in honor of that special time together.
My first-ever trip to the beach was at age 9, when my family took a bus from Puebla to Veracruz for a family wedding. From the moment we arrived, I was overwhelmed by the wonders of the ocean and its people, food and culture. I was enamored by my first bite of ceviche, prepared right in front of us by a fisherman with his just-caught snapper. My love of seafood continues to this day, and Caracol is my homage to this amazing, versatile and healthful delicacy.
Sixteen of Mexico’s states are along the country’s coastline, and each settlement along the water has developed a cuisine dependent on what is locally available, both from the sea and land. Because it is localized differentiation and ever-changing climates, fishing techniques and general conditions, Mexican coastal cuisine is a source of endless study and enjoyment.
My wife Tracy and I love to travel together to different parts of Mexico. We love seafood, fishing and the ocean, and so many of our trips involve visiting beach towns. There are very few coastal states we haven’t been to on our trips. Besides having fun, I’ve learned a lot about my country and its coastal dishes. Each area has its own specialties…from Ensenada and Rosarito with its mysterious Pata de Mula black ceviche, chocolata clams and Aguachile, to Celestun and Merida and their Tikin Xic, conch, their beachside ceviches and Pan de Cazon, a shark specialty– we love it all!
Huatulco has the most pristine beaches I’ve ever visited, many of them accessible only by boat. There, we were introduced to a new breakfast dish of charales and eggs, stuffed jalapeño tacos and Pescado a la Talla by a local home cook. It was there that we ate a unique Vuelve a la Vida out of the shells, prepared by a fisherman who dove for them just moments before. He offered just hot sauce and lime and it tasted like the best meal of my life. We spent part of our honeymoon in Zihuatenejo many years ago and have been back recently. Back then, we were hooked on a deeply flavored seafood soup that we ate from beach chairs day after day on that romantic trip. On our recent trip, we found our way to a fisherman’s home who offered us seaweed salad, barnacles, chitons, whelks, langostinos, oysters and more!
My brother, Ruben, and I did a great deal of scouting in Mexico for our book, Hugo Ortega's Street Food of Mexico, in 2011 with photographer Penny de los Santos, and one of the highlights on the trip was Veracruz. The food and the people are so different than other places in Mexico. It felt great to return as an adult and see the people dancing in the streets and taste Huachinango a la Veracruzana and Arroz a la Tumbada which are local specialties. We went to the local seafood market, bought a red snapper and cooked Pescado a las Brazas right on the beach!
I’m not the best fisherman but I love to fish when I get a chance. What I lack in fishing acumen, I make up for in ceviche-making skills, which come in handy on our Mexico travels. On a recent stop to fish in the shallow clear waters of Holbox off the coast of Cozumel, I didn’t catch a fish but I prepared the freshest ceviche with our boatmate's catch and redeemed myself!
Here at Caracol, we source the best ingredients from the Pacific, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean for our authentic regional and historic dishes of Mexico. We want the restaurant to be a “beach getaway” at any time during the week. We hope the menu, décor and even our waitstaff uniforms transport our guests to their favorite places in Mexico even if for an hour or 2. Join us at Caracol for a culinary tour along the Mexican coasts. ¡Vamonos!
Hugo Ortega finalist for Best Chef: Southwest at James Beard Foundation Awards 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012
Ranked #5 in Top 100 Restaurants in Houston by Alison Cook, Houston Chronicle, 2016
“Houston’s Best International Restaurants, Southern Living February 2016
One of Houston’s Top Four Latin American Restaurants, Forbes Travel Guide,
Featured in “Food Cities: Searching for America’s Greatest Food Cities,” The Washington Post
Wine Spectator Best of Award Of Excellence ~ 2015
“What Makes Houston’s the Next Great American City?” Smithsonian Magazine, July 2013
Included on list of “120 Tacos to Eat Before You Die,” Texas Monthly
“10 Houston Dishes to Eat Before You Die: Greatest Culinary Hits Abound in H-Town.” Culturemap
Tracy Vaught, Restaurateur of the Year, 2014 Houston Culinary Awards
100 Favorite Houston Dishes 2015: #12, Crab Soup at Caracol, Houston Press
Houston’s Best New Restaurants for 2013, No.2 Alison Cook, Houston Chronicle
Top new restaurant in Texas, Texas Monthly, January 2014
Led list of Houston's 10 Hottest Restaurants, Houston Modern Luxury, July 2014
Named #2 Best New Restaurant in Houston, Houstonia magazine, October 2014
One of the 5 best happy hours in Galleria area, Houston Press, September 2014
Five New Restaurants with Stunning Design, Zagat, September 2014
Houston 10 Hottest Restaurant, Zagat Houston, June3 2014
Houston’s 38 Essential Restaurants, Eater Houston, March 2014
Feature on top places in Houston, Daily Candy, February 2014
100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 34, Chiles de Padron Asados at Caracol, Houston Press, February 2014
Houston’s Best Oyster Restaurants, Culturemap.com; January 2014
Where to Eat Right Now, Eater Houston, January 2014
Houston’s Top Newcomers, Eater Houston, December 2013
The work of renowned American illustrator Charley Harper seen on our walls was acquired through the help of Charley's own son, Brett Harper, and the Charley Harper Art Studio in Cincinnati. Brett Harper released the following statement in regards to the art:
"What sold me was the architect's vision. It was a compelling and really quite intelligent location of my late father's artwork in this building. Not only that, but the premise of marrying upscale seafood presentation with bold Charley Harper pictures of underwater creatures was striking. The architect reached deep into the studio's vast archives. What did he pull out of it for Caracol? Fourteen images that, when enlarged, fit the theme of dining on seafood in a hip space that makes you smile. Can you imagine a fourteen foot long canvas of a giant squid battling a whale? They're there, massive wall murals and mini wall murals, each where it shows off to best effect. As our newest interiors licensee, designtex fabric wall coverings, says it best, " Why Charley Harper? Because he makes you smile!"